Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fatal Oak

One story from the earliest days of La Farge and the Kickapoo Valley that still carries its emotional message to us is that of a lumber rafting accident that occurred in 1870. The accident took the lives of three young men from the La Farge area and was immortalized in a poem written by Abbie Payne called The Fatal Oak. The words of the poem show the deep affection by the people of the Valley for the lads who lost their lives. That poem was eventually put to music and the song of the accident was sung at gatherings around the area for years. The song moved north with the lumber crews and into their work camps when the lumber ran out in the Kickapoo Valley. Eventually the folk tune was sung wherever lumber crews were. It would be placed on a national register of lumber camp songs and is known throughout the country.
In the early fall of 1870, two rafts of sawn lumber are ready to ride down the Kickapoo. This is a time before there were good roads leading out of the Valley, so the river is used as the way to get the wood product to market. The lumber is finished at Dempster Seely's mill at the village of Star, commonly called Seelyburg. The booming river town is located on the north end of what now is La Farge. The lumber is owned by Anson DeJean, who like Seely had a mill on the Kickapoo where Bear Creek joins the river. DeJean converts his mill to a grist operation, but still owns vast tracts of land for harvesting lumber. DeJean needs a crew of four to help him get his lumber down the Kickapoo. They're known as "Seely's Men" because everyone in the area works for the mill owner. Straws are drawn, wooden slivers actually, to see who will be the last to fill the crew. It is hard work to get the lumber rafts down the river, yet an adventure too, as the young men may get to see Davenport, Dubuque, or Galena before the trip is over.
When the lumber rafts come down the river, the people of the Valley act as a community to aid in the effort. One of the crew usually runs ahead to the next town to ask that the dam be closed to build up a head of water so the rafts can pass through. If the rafts are left on the Wisconsin River, the crew often walks back up the Kickapoo to home, living off the generosity of neighbors on the river for food and lodging.
DeJean's crew makes it down the Kickapoo and steers their rafts onto the great Wisconsin. They pass below Wauzeka and tie up their rafts at a place above the sloughs of Wyalusing. They tie to at a favorite place with an oak tree for an anchor, have supper and sleep that night on their rafts. In the morning, DeJean goes ashore to start breakfast. As he does so, he sees the tree start to topple towards the rafts with his sleeping crew. The tree crashes down on the rafts trapping the young men under its weight. Only one is able to escape and three others drown in the river. Only two of the bodies were recovered at the time of the accident, but the other was found some time later down river. Mrs. Payne, who lived in Wauzeka at the time, wrote the memorial poem and sent it to the DeJean family. It is said that it was read at the funeral of the last boy who was returned to Seelyburg for burial.
On December 5, String Ties, the popular musical group of western Wisconsin, will play in concert at the Visitor Center of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. They will sing their stirring version of The Fatal Oak that evening, and the Friends of The Reserve will be recording the song and program. Plans are being made for future sales of a CD or DVD based on the song and the story.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Human Cork

This week in my Local History Notebook, published in the La Farge Episcope newspaper, I wrote about the interesting life of Bill Claybrook. He was a La Farge lad who gained some fame in the 1930's & '40's as "The Unsinkable Man" or "The Human Cork". Apparently, Bill was a floater extraordinaire, who was featured in Look magazine and on the Ripley's Believe It Or Not" radio show and syndicated newspaper column. In the October 11, 1939 Milwaukee Sentinel, Bill was featured in the Ripley's column, which included a photograph of him. The column said,"He is called "The Human Cork", being given that name because he can stand erect in water, even walk and sleep, but his face always remains above the water's surface."
Bill graduated from La Farge High School in 1914, moved from the Kickapoo and worked in theaters in Minnesota for nearly 20 years. It is thought that Bill may have acquired his buoyancy skills while in this line of work, perhaps learning from traveling vaudeville shows. When World War II broke out, Bill offered his services to the U.S. war department, with no luck. Later, the Canadian government approached Bill regarding training their servicemen in his floating skill. Bill lived in Charleston, West Virginia when he passed away in 1944 at the age of 51. He was brought back to his home town for the funeral and buried in Bear Creek Cemetery. "Non-Sinkable William" had returned to his home.

Monday, November 2, 2009

That Dam History

I have recently been doing some research on the La Farge Dam Project. That story is an important one for the history of La Farge, that I am currently working on. In fact if you trace the dam history from its origins after the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 up through the present use of the dam project land as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, one could argue that it is the most important or salient aspect of the village's history. Much has been written and many studies have been done on the early years of the project; from its inception by Congress in 1962 through the halting of the project in 1975. I have been focusing my recent research on the years after that time, from 1975 through the 1990's, when Governor Tommy Thompson sent in Al Anderson from UW-Extension to look for some answers to the dam project controversy. The creation of the Reserve, of course, is what happened in the end, but it has been very interesting looking at the other options that were looked at in the 1970's and '80's.
The main function of the La Farge Dam Project, which included levees at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, was for flood control. Yet after the dam project was stopped, although the discussion seemed to always be focused on flood control, nothing was ever done in all those years to give the valley any effective system to deal with the great river floods. Soldiers Grove headed to the hills after the great flood of 1978 and relocated their business district and Main Street in Solar Town. Gays Mills is starting the same process now after being ravaged by great river floods of the Kickapoo in August, 2007 and June of 2008. Through all of this, the unfinished dam sat north of La Farge, a possible aid in dealing with floods, yet never utilized for its original purpose.
Not that there weren't plenty of ideas brought forward in various forms to finish and use the dam. There was the smaller lake proposal (800 acres instead of 1,800) floated by the Corps of Engineers within a couple of years of having the original plan stopped. That COE concept was loudly rejected by state and federal officials and environmentalists due to the same water quality problems that had plagued the original lake proposal. Then there was the dry dam proposal, which said complete the dam so it could be used solely for flood control. That idea in various forms was bounced around for more than a decade and was supported by various governors, senators, congressmen, and county boards to no avail. One idea that I learned about in my latest research was a plan championed by Congressman Steve Gunderson to have a dry dam built, which would later be turned into a wet dam, when water quality issues could be resolved. Various hydro-electric options were forwarded over the years to make the finances for the dam more feasible, all to no avail.
For years, the majority of La Farge citizens held out for the original big lake proposal, which probably did not help some of the alternatives presented during those turbulent times. A local group of these proponents, Kickapoo Land Owners United Together (KLOUT) was formed with two basic goals: get the dam project finished in its original form or return the land to the former land owners. Court injunctions were filed by KLOUT members for return of the land to the former owners, again to no avail.
This history of the dam project after the original project was stopped had long lasting consequences for La Farge and the rest of the Kickapoo Valley.